The incredible growth of 1849 San Francisco

Early records and accounts of arrivals to the city all agree that the growth of San Francisco in 1849 was unparalleled. The number of residents, estimated to be two thousand in February, three thousand in March, five thousand in July had increased to somewhere near twenty thousand by the end of the year, and all of these people had to have a place to live. The buildings in town were confined to an area of about one half-mile square and with a few exceptions were widely scattered.

San Francisco 1849

There were several adobe structures such as the old customs house at the northwest corner of Portsmouth Square, the City Hotel at the southwest corner of Kearny and Clay, a residence at Powell and Broadway and another at Powell and Filbert. There was one brick building at Powell and Washington, then two stories tall, but after the nearby streets were graded down sixteen feet two more floors were added underneath. The other homes and businesses were of wood frame construction with the businesses generally along Montgomery Street between Broadway and California or near to the square with the homes further back.

George Henry Burgess San Francisco 1849

The famous Parker House, built in 1849 on the east side of Kearny Street opposite the square on the site that would become the Jenny Lind Theater and then City Hall, was two stories tall with an attic that sported dormer windows. It cost thirty thousand dollars to build and was rented out for gambling at fifteen hundred dollars a month. Another gambling house next door, the El Dorado, was only a tent and rented for forty thousand a year. Other buildings, conveniently located here in the heart of the city, commanded similar rents.

Portsmouth Square, 1850

In the hills to the north and west and along the sand ridges to the south tents and shanties were scattered randomly among the bushes and brambles along winding trails and afforded nothing more than temporary shelter for those in need of it. And with so many people pouring into the city there was a tremendous demand for shelter. Real estate prices soared to amazing heights. A fifty-vara lot, the smaller of the two common sizes of city lots, sold once for twelve dollars now could command thousands and if very well located then tens of thousands of dollars. Interest rates climbed from eight to fifteen percent per month. Bricks cost a dollar each and lumber rose to five hundred dollars for a thousand feet. San Francisco was booming.



  1. Harold Grice says

    Supplying the city with fair; lumber, brick, meat, poultry, and field crops (+fruit) promoted many farms and ranches to expand. That too would be interesting.

    • So true, Harold, but that happened in many ways. One of the first such farms was at Chico and belonged to John Bidwell. One of the first Americans to cross the Sierra he served as John Sutter’s secretary until gold was discovered then made a quick fortune along the Feather River before he turned to farming. He soon sold his wheat as far away as Europe, but there were many others all across California who contributed to feeding an ever growing population. Thanks for writing.

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